Former Miami Dolphin Shares His Family's Racist Encounter at Cheeca Lodge

O.J. McDuffie and family at the beach.
O.J. McDuffie and family at the beach. Photo courtesy of O.J. McDuffie
O.J. McDuffie's family had an encounter with racism in Islamorada over the weekend, and the former Miami Dolphins wide receiver took to social media yesterday to share the experience.

He was, in Facebook parlance, "feeling pissed off."

"Just a little/big something I thought I would share," McDuffie wrote. "My youngest son (12yr old) and my wife were at Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada. While my son was playing on the beach, two kids said 'Hey Ni****, want a banana?' to him. My wife was livid and approached the kids to ask them what they had said. They denied it. So she went to security, and nothing was done."

Just a little/big something I thought I would share. My youngest son (12yr old) and my wife were at Cheeca Lodge & Spa...

Posted by OJ McDuffie on Sunday, August 16, 2020
New Times caught up with McDuffie by phone today to get the full story.

"My wife didn’t hear it initially, but she asked my son what they said and he told her," he explains. "So she went to the boys and asked them what they said — they were teenage boys who were bigger than her — and they tried to play really dumb about it. They were very disrespectful to her."

McDuffie says his wife reported the incident to resort security, but they seemed to shrug it off. When she went back to her son, the teens' mother sought her out.

"She got in my wife’s face while she was sitting down on a business call," McDuffie recounts. (His wife, Fran Smock-McDuffie, is a real estate agent.) "The lady began to berate her about talking to her kids. My wife — she’s tough — she wasn’t going to let her get in her face like that. At that point, there was a big scene going on — I mean, this lady searched my wife out to get in her face.

"And security was there again. But they pretty much did nothing. They did walk my wife up to the front desk; she wanted to talk to management about the incident. And as they were walking up there, this lady was going off on my wife again, calling her 'this crazy lady,' and still, they didn’t say anything to her."

Inside, McDuffie says, the management wasn't any more responsive.

"They said they were going to look into it. They asked for her room number — pretty much that’s all they did. They never did call to check on us."

A spokesperson for Cheeca Lodge emailed a statement in response to New Times' request for comment about the incident.

"We want to apologize to Mr. McDuffie and his family for the incident that occurred with another guest at our resort," Cheeca Lodge management states. "We do not tolerate the type of behavior described and we are currently reviewing the matter."

McDuffie says his son wanted to go back to the beach but his wife, worried that the teens might return, wouldn't let him.

"They did nothing to make my family feel safe or feel welcome there. The manager walked right by a couple of times, didn’t say anything — 'Are you OK? Can we do anything?' Nothing. They had their high-priced clientele there and they were more important than my family was."

McDuffie took pains to add that he isn't going to let what happened wipe out all the good experiences he and his family have enjoyed in Islamorada.

"We’re not in the business of trying to have people boycott Cheeca Lodge," he says. "It’s no indication of the type of really great people we’ve known down in Islamorada. We’ve gone to Islamorada ever since I came into the league in 1993, and they’re just amazing people. I just wanted to highlight that incident and how poorly I thought it was handled by [the staff].

"I just saw how shook my wife was. It’s the first time my youngest son has had something like that happen to him. I know it’s not going to be the last. And it just sucked as a dad not being able to be there to talk to him about it — to tell him how some people can be, how insensitive."

The popular ex-Dolphin's post drew attention on Facebook, attracting more than 500 comments and nearly 200 shares in less than 24 hours. Several commenters headed over to the Cheeca's Facebook page as well, where they left negative reviews:

"I once loved staying at Cheeca Lodge. Was heartbroken when it burned down but so happy they rebuilt and was looking forward to returning. But after learning that they turn a blind eye to racism on their property, I’m afraid I can no longer give them my business or recommend them to others. If you don’t stand for something, then you stand for nothing."
"Racist personnel. Will never forget or return."

"Just knowing that your staff and security does not offer a safe environment I will longer be staying there and will be advising my fellow travelers not to stay where they are not welcome racism of any kind will not be tolerated."

The Dolphins took McDuffie with the 25th pick in the 1993 NFL draft, and he played his entire eight-year career with the team. A preferred target of hall-of-fame quarterback Dan Marino, the wideout led the league in receptions in 1998, and his career total of 415 catches ranks fourth all-time in team history.

McDuffie, who was born in Ohio and starred on the gridiron under Joe Paterno at Penn State, lives in Plantation with his family. He's the founder of the Catch 81 Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for children’s charitable causes throughout South Florida.
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Tom Finkel began his journalism career in Miami in 1989, when New Times, then a fledgling weekly, hired him as a proofreader. He left as managing editor nine years later, only to return in 2019, having served in the meantime as editor-in-chief of City Pages in Minneapolis, Riverfront Times in St. Louis, and the Village Voice in New York City.
Contact: Tom Finkel